Is the NBA Losing Its Street Cred?

NBAE/Getty Images
NBAE/Getty Images

This weekend, when the NBA All Stars play in New Orleans, expect lots of slam dunks and other flamboyant plays that have become typical of black basketball. It's not an ugly stereotype; it's history. Pre-NBA, most black basketball teams played in ballrooms and were part of an evening of entertainment that often included a big band and a dance. A fast-paced, athletic, and crowd pleasing style was required.


By contrast, the quieter more rigorous style involving lots of players in motion, disciplined placement and meticulously created mismatches leading to an open jump shot became known by many names, such as Hoosier and Euroball and other thinly veiled references to "not street." (Though not necessarily white, since many of the top Euroball imports are now black.)

Well, when the All Stars return to their teams and the regular season resumes on Tuesday, those stereotypes will continue a lengthy process of redefinition. The two best teams in the NBA this season, the Boston Celtics and the Detroit Pistons, fit that non-flamboyant style to a T, yet they've done it with all-black starting lineups and a mostly black set of reserves. They are mowing down the league with ruthless efficiency.

This summer, the Celtics scuttled several years of youth movements and traded their underachieving young players to Seattle and Minnesota respectively for Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, two perennial all stars. The pair joined with Beantown stalwart Paul Pierce and pundits wondered how the three stars would mesh. Instead of a tug-of-war for the ball, self-sacrifice has been the order of the day as all three players have reduced their offensive load, taking anywhere from three to six fewer shots per contest and seeing three to eight point dips in their per game scoring averages.

In some games, members of the supporting cast, point guard Rajon Rondo, center Kendrick Perkins or reserve forward Glen "Big Baby" Davis have taken the lead. Defense is perhaps the best indicator of a team's work ethic, and this season's Celtics lead the league in every key metric.

Although Celtics boast the best record in the league, they are merely joining the Pistons, owners of the second best mark, in terms of businesslike black basketball. The Pistons are in the midst of a golden age. In each of the last five seasons, they've reached the Eastern Conference Finals; they won a title in 2004, upsetting the heavily favored Lakers. Even more so than the Celtics, who have superstars who have willingly dimmed their shine to meld into a team, the Pistons are a team of stars none of whom is likely to ever have a sneaker contract.

Instead they rely of teamwork and disciplined execution; the typical Piston play involves guard Richard Hamilton coming off of two screens for an open mid-range jump shot or forward Tayshaun Prince backing away from a distracted defender and hitting a three pointer. While most consider their title the Pistons peak, I'll always remember the final minutes of Game 7 of the 2005 Eastern Conference Finals. The Pistons were in a tight game in Miami and at the moment that most teams eagerly hand the ball to their superstar and get out of the way, the Pistons simply ran their offense. They deftly created open shots, which Hamilton and point guard Chauncey Billups calmly sank en route to a victory.


Does the rise of these teams mark a change in the behavior of young black hoops stars? Maybe, but all the selfish players indulging their Michael Jordan version 1.0 (i.e Be Like Mike, score 47 for a team that loses 95-88) fantasies may be engaging in brand-building instead of immaturity. Sneaker contracts, videogame roles come to players who get on ESPN's Sportscenter or You Tube. There are a lot more endorsement deals handed out each season than championship rings, and if players aren't aware of this then their agents—who don't receive a commission for title celebrations—have told them.

Just as the flamboyant players have an antecedent, so do the Pistons and Celtics. Their historic archetype is the Harlem Rens, the top team of the Black Fives era, a circuit of teams that predated the NBA; they are the hoops parallel to the Negro Leagues in baseball. The Rens invented the motion offense, now used by many basketball teams at all levels around the world, and they popularized pick-and-roll play, a staple of every offense. So not only are the Celtics and Pistons defying contemporary racial stereotypes about their sport, they are reflecting part of the game's glorious and underrated history.


Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.

Martin Johnson writes about music for the Wall Street Journal, basketball for Slate and beer for Eater, and he blogs at both the Joy of Cheese and Rotations. Follow him on Twitter